If you hadn’t seen the wine cellar at Element 47, the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant The Little Nell resort in Aspen, with your own eyes, you probably wouldn’t believe it. Red mood lighting, hip-hop streaming through the speakers and autograph-covered walls cast the space in a fun, easy-going light you wouldn’t expect from a vault filled with a 1997 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte, a 1971 Dom Pérignon and 24,000 other serious bottles of fine wine and champagne.
Head sommelier Chris Dunaway helps to oversee the private tastings, tours and day-to-day dealings in this unstuffiest of cellars. The 29-year-old doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of what’s expected in the category, either: Dunaway is a Henderson, Kentucky, native who learned about grapes from his grandparents.
This year, The Little Nell’s team — Carlton McCoy, the resort’s wine director and master sommelier, leads a group that includes Dunaway and two other sommeliers, Erik Elliott and Jesse Libby — is a finalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program (it also was named a finalist in 2014 and 2016). Dunaway will join McCoy for the ceremony in Chicago on May 7. Win or lose, The Little Nell will leave with its head held high knowing that it has a budding star in Dunaway, a sommelier who likes rap, Riesling and exploring the Rockies.
How are your nerves with the James Beard announcement so near?
It’s crazy. It’s every professional’s dream in hospitality to go to this event and be considered for an award. It is anxiety-inducing while you wait for that moment. But if you look at it from the other side, it’s a proud accomplishment. It’s something that brings a lot of joy and lets you know you’re in the right place doing the right things. It’s good.
I’m excited to get out there. If we win, it’s going to be incredible. If we don’t, it’ll be devastating. But at the same time, you’ve gotta be grateful that you’re being recognized with the greatest in the game.
Where in your journey from Western Kentucky to Aspen did you fall in love with wine?
It became ingrained in my DNA at an early age. My grandparents had a garden when I was growing up, and they grew grapevines and produced a small amount of table wine. Wine was always a fleeting interest as a child, growing up and seeing that.
I never took it as seriously, until probably right after college. I was working at a hospital, and one of the pharmacists happened to notice I was reading a book on wine. She asked me if I was interested in wine. I said, “Yeah.” I had been having some wine with dinner with friends and was interested in learning more about it.
She made a phone call to one of her good friends who owned a wine bar in one of the neighboring towns and essentially got me a bartending position there with no experience.
I wanted to go into making wine but I didn’t have the prerequisites to get in some of the graduate schools for that. So, I pursued becoming a sommelier on the good advice of some friends.
My brother was in his medical residency in New Jersey, so he gave me a place to stay until I found my own spot. I started working at a wine store in Montclair, New Jersey, and it happened to be one of the best retail wine stores in the country. We had big-time winemakers coming through. We did dinners. We did events. I was able to teach classes there. At the time, I was 22 years old and I was teaching 40- and 50-year-olds about pairing food and wine. It was kind of crazy.
Then, I finally got a job working for a master sommelier by the name of Laura Maniec at Corkbuzz. That was an incredible experience. She built a strong foundation for me to learn. That particular wine bar and restaurant group became a kind of hub for wine education in New York City. I got the chance to meet some of the biggest names in the wine industry there and abroad as well.
When I hit my ceiling for growth there, I got a job working for Daniel Boulud. I wasn’t there for long, but long enough to work for some really talented industry professionals.
This job [at The Little Nell] was one I pursued aggressively and sought it out — just because of the rich tradition at the Nell; the  master sommeliers that have come through there; the depth and quality of the wines that we’re able to provide; and the clientele. The beautiful ambiance of the Rockies didn’t hurt, either.
You mention teaching 50-year-olds about wine. Have you dealt with any ageism in your profession?
By and large, people are very receptive to the knowledge. There are just as many people that would say [negative things] as people that don’t know as much.
But I have encountered some collectors from all over the world who are extraordinarily knowledgeable about wine and that can be a little intimidating. But that forces you to become very knowledgeable about your craft, to be very informed. In the early stages, I have come across people who may know an extraordinary amount about particular chateaus or domains, and they may have had an air of “Who is this guy?”
What I think is incredible about this place is that there are a lot of people who are big-time collectors and know a lot more than we do, but they’re so generous and want to share their information. It makes us sharp and keenly aware of things going on in the industry. It helps us to really grow at a pace that you don’t find in places like New York, where you would find a lot of big-time collectors who wouldn’t even listen to what the sommelier had to say.
What is it about The Little Nell that makes it so attractive to wine professionals and connoisseurs?
I think it has a lot to do with where it all started with [master sommelier] Bobby Stuckey building the company from the ground up. Obviously, the property is beautiful, so it’s easy to attract people from all over the world to come there. But I think with what Bobby did, and what others after him built upon, it just became a very successful place.
It’s highly unusual that you have a town that’s so small and so geographically isolated, that can also have an abundance of resources and clients that come in and out from all over the world.
At this point, people come here to learn about wine now because of the foundation that was built by Bobby and the culture that was created by [master sommelier] Jay Fletcher. People are attracted to charisma and I think both of those guys have it in spades. They’ve done an incredible job of marketing Aspen as a food and wine destination on top of just being a ski destination.
Outside of wine and University of Kentucky basketball, what are your other loves?
I love to travel. One of the huge things I enjoy about this job is that it affords us the opportunity to travel three to four weeks two times a year [during The Little Nell’s seasonal closures]. Before I started working here, I wasn’t able to do that. I didn’t really have that much passion for traveling because I hadn’t really been anywhere.
Moving out to the Rockies has helped me discover my love for being outdoors. Colorado is known for being a big skiing place. But just being able to get out and hike and see things from a higher perspective on the mountains is really humbling.